How to Critique

Critiquing is very srs bsns.

No, really.

Critiques give writers hope for their stories and help to keep those stories going. Critiques gives writers the fans they need to keep going, and motivation to write better because they have an audience. And finally, critiques give you, the critiquer, the opportunity to better understand the writing process and in turn better your skills.

The thing is, critiquing is hard enough when you’ve new to writing. You don’t know where to start–it all looks so intimidating, and everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing. That, my dear readers, is how I can help you.

I’ll start off with novel chapters, since that’s what I critique the most often and what seems to be in the most abundance on the forum. (The cool thing about reading novels on the internet is that generally, you don’t read the whole thing at once. You generally start following the author when s/he posts the first chapter, and continue to critique every chapter after that, if the story interests you.)

First of all, there are several things not to do when giving good critiques. Number one, the Golden Rule, is to never say “It looks great” without offering any other feedback. This is not a critique, this is a nuisance for the writer because it is entirely unhelpful beyond the fact that you liked her novel. Instead of being so vague, even if you did think the novel was great, find what, specifically, you thought was great. Were the characters realistic? The plot intriguing? The prose beautiful and poetic? Be as detailed as possible so the writer knows how to continue to do better. Number two, don’t be rude. It’s okay to say what you didn’t like about the piece, but be kind and keep the author’s feelings in mind as you review.

Moving along!

There are three types of critiques: broad, general comments about the overall structure of the chapter/novel; specific comments about the characters, motivations, plot twists, writing style, etc.; and in-depth line-by-line critiques for grammar, spelling, style, flow, etc.

The first type of critique is only marginally helpful. Most often, I see this executed as a well-meaning “It looks great!” or “I don’t see anything wrong with your plot!” though it can come in the form of “You have a massive plot hole in Chapter 3.” I find these critiques helpful only if the comments are of the latter kind and not the former. See Golden Rule #1 of Critiquing, above, for why these critiques are generally unhelpful.

The second type of critiquing, comments about specific aspects of the story, are the best for first drafts. Often, authors will post lists of questions they want answered, which is helpful for those of you who have no idea how to give feedback. If there is no list of questions, focus on the following aspects of the story, in this order: emotions, characters, plot, and setting. Start off with emotions. Talk about how you felt while reading. Were you happy? Sad? Scared? Laughing out loud? Knowing your emotional response to each event helps the author gauge how successful she was when writing the scene. I myself often write scenes with projected reader emotions in mind and getting feedback on how successful I was helps me plan the next chapter. Next, focus on characters. For first chapters, talk about whether you cared about the Hero. Did he capture your interest? Are his actions and reactions realistic? Do you sympathize with him? Do his motivations make sense? This is especially helpful in earlier chapters, when it isn’t too late for the author to fix things later. Then, focus on the plot. Have there been any obvious, gaping holes from chapter to chapter? Did the author drop a plot line from Chapter 4? Are there any characters who have been brought up once or twice, seemed to play an important role, and then are never mentioned again? And finally, talk about the setting and description. Did you see clearly every character and setting? Or were some things fuzzy? Is there too much purple prose, or is the author’s writing sparse of almost all description? Keep in mind that description is very subjective–it’s okay to not have a lot of it, and it’s okay to write prose that reads more like poetry, but there are extremes to both sides. Instead of saying that an author should have more or less description, just write down the pictures you have in your head of the characters and setting, and let the author decide if the reader needs more information, or if the current description is good enough.

The third type of critique is (almost) never helpful for first drafts. Why? Because a critique explaining in great depth every grammatical mistake and awkwardly worded sentence is a waste of time. Often, much of the original story will be cut and/or reworded and rewritten by the time the final draft gets around. If you give the author, in exact detail, every misspelled word and misplaced comma, s/he will feel obligated to fix it. And then, when s/he revises later, it will turn out to have been a waste of time because the parts s/he just fixed no longer exist. Always, alway wait until the author asks for grammar/line-by-line critiques before giving them to save time and effort all around. (NOW! This is not to say that you should never point out errors, especially if it is a common error (constant misuse of commas, constant awkward wording, etc.) that the author needs to address now before s/he goes any further. That’s okay. Just don’t waste your time with proofreading the whole chapter in this manner.)

Now,  as you may have already noticed, first chapter critiques are slightly different from other chapters. One reason for this is because first chapters must contain certain elements in order to properly engage the reader within the first ten seconds that s/he glances at the page. When critiquing a first chapter (or the first four pages), keep a running list of all the questions you find yourself asking. Obviously some of them won’t be answered in the first chapter, or even until the end of the story, but the purpose of the first chapter is to feed the reader hors d’oeuvre to make him hungry for a five-course meal. Pay special attention to the things that grab your attention and write them down for the author.

Now I’ll get into the actual structure of the critique. Sometimes, this is the hardest part, when the author doesn’t give a list of questions, so I’ll just tell you what I do. Keep in mind there is no right way to structure a critique–just make sure you include everything you want to say in an organized manner, and put as first priority any questions the author wants answered. Generally, I make comments on the actual document (too much passive voice, great emotion here, too long description, etc.) and then write up several paragraphs of my impressions at the end. If the author gave questions, I answer those and put my other comments last. Pretty simple.

At any rate, I feel like I’ve rambled on enough about critiquing now. I hope this helps everyone!

~Mercia Dragonslayer

PS in case this looks familiar to anyone, yes I did indeed post it on OYAN like five seconds ago. I shamelessly recycle forum posts into blog posts, I’m a horrible person…

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About merciatremblac

I'm a junior in college, creative writing major, currently living in the mountains of North Carolina with my best friend for a roommate.
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